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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Matryoshka Maker Gets a Modern Face-Lift

The Semyonov factory, the makers of top-of-the-line wooden toys and other Russian souvenirs for nearly 70 years, proudly boasts that you can buy their wares only in proper shops and not in the markets of Izmailovo or the Stary Arbat.

For years if you fancied non-traditional matryoshka dolls with the faces of your favorite celebrities, cartoon characters or sports idols then the Stary Arbat was the place for you.

Now the factory has turned its hand to creating more esoteric dolls and giving the customers - preferably foreign ones - exactly what they want.

Semyonov is currently discussing supplying a group of American businessmen with dolls painted in traditional Hawaiian costumes. A contract could lead to the shipment of 5,000 grass-skirted matryoshkas a month to the Pacific island, said Denis Morozov, director of the company's Moscow office.

At last week's Football Market 2000, a trade fair for the soccer industry held at the Kremlin Palace, the factory was showing off a David Beckham doll and wooden plates with the emblems of Manchester United, CSKA and Spartak Moscow.

The Semyonov factory, situated just outside Nizhny Novgorod, was founded in 1932 and only turned to non-traditional products in 1998 after falling into financial disarray. While in 1992 the factory had provided for 15 percent of the Nizhny Novgorod region's foreign currency earnings, it gradually lost most of its foreign clients and by 1997, was only selling 800,000 rubles worth of souvenirs a year.

Then a new management began to focus on foreign sales and a more specialized product. Now the factory has two workshops, one in which 80 artists work on trad itional souvenirs and another in which 35 artists work on more experimental material. Sales last year were up to 6.5 million rubles, Morozov said.

Semyonov says its dolls are better than most sold on the street because they are painted by hand using lead-free paint, not the floor lacquer favored by other matryoshka creators. Prices range from $3 to $200.

At the trade fair, most of the dolls were fair caricatures, even if the names weren't always right - Michael Owen became Michael Oyen and looked more Brazilian than Liverpudlian.

A David Beckham doll opens up to reveal five other Manchester United players inside, diminishing in size down to a teeny weeny Ryan Giggs. There's no room for Beckham's wife, Posh Spice, but Morozov says anything can be arranged.

In Semyonov's Moscow office, a series of dolls dressed as Arabs sit near a set of Roman Catholic popes alongside soccer star Ronaldo and his teammates from Inter Milan.

Unlike the matryoshka artists who supply the Arbat, who are quick to respond to events, the factory waits for orders.

Within a couple of days of his becoming acting president, an unsmiling Vladimir Putin had already taken the place of Boris Yeltsin on the stands of souvenir sellers on the Arbat.

"Even before he was named [acting president], they did them," said Valentina, who runs a market stall on the Arbat "The artists knew."

Semyonov, though, has kept away from politics.

"It's popes not presidents," said Yevgeny Dozortsev, manager of the Moscow office, pointing to the set of six popes ordered by an Italian businessman.

Unless the presidents are on the receiving end. The company said Yeltsin received a Semyonov matryoshka late last year from his bodyguards, who chose a traditional nesting doll of rosy-cheeked girls wearing headscarves.

Other recent orders have come from a businessman who presented his colleagues with a six-piece set of dolls with their faces on it and a foreign businessman who ordered a 22-piece set for $1,000 with a different Russian folk tale painted on each piece. The Washington Opera ordered a matryoshka doll of Placido Domingo and his co-stars.

Wooden toys in Russia have been traced back as far as the ninth century. Soviet archeologists found them in the Nizhny Novgorod area. According to Semyonov's historical account, Peter the Great's children were wild for wooden toys and bought three cows, two horses, two deer, four sheep, one duck, three ducklings and a city with soldiers at the equivalent of a Moscow toy store in 1721.

Matryoshka dolls, however, appeared only at the turn of the 20th century. They were created by Sergei Malyutin for an art exhibit in Paris and have always been more popular with foreigners than with Russians. Malyutin took the idea from the Japanese, who are some of the factory's biggest customers today.